There is enormous variety when it comes to SAT prep options and parents often have difficulty choosing which option is best for their child. Obviously a student can self study, do an online course, take a live class, get private SAT tutoring, plus many options in between. What’s best for one student is not necessarily best for another, but there are some general truths regarding all of the options that can help you make a more informed, educated decision.
The main advantage to taking a class is that it is generally cheaper than hiring a private SAT tutor. Having an individual tutor for your child is invariably more effective (assuming the tutor knows what he or she is doing), but taking a class can be valuable in certain circumstances. When students are first starting out they tend to know almost nothing about the SAT, so taking a class at that point can serve as a good, low-cost introduction to the test and some of the basic strategies for dealing with it. The problem is that once a student has a good familiarity with the SAT they usually need some specific guidance that is tailored to their particular weaknesses and the only real way to get that is to have private tutor watch a student work through questions and even probe them to get a better understanding of exactly what mental processes are taking place, then guide the student based on that.
Within the category of private SAT tutoring there are two main options: going through a major test prep company and hiring an independent private tutor. Though it may seem like using a major provider is a safer bet, that is not necessarily the case. First of all, many SAT tutors who work for major companies are novices – I know this because I was once one of them and got to see what it was like from the inside of a major test prep company. The truth is that most of these tutors come in having scored well on the test that they intend to teach but knowing nothing about teaching or tutoring and are trained by the company for their role. Once a tutor gains enough experience, they tend to leave the major companies since they can command (and at that point deserve) much more money than they receive working for one of the big companies.
More importantly, however, the major test prep companies are handcuffed by their own model of doing business. Since for marketing and branding reasons they create their own books, questions, and practice tests, they tend not to use the official materials published by College Board (the company that makes the SAT). Ironically many parents are duped into thinking that this adds some extra value to have resources created by the test prep company, when in fact the reverse is true. By ignoring the “real” questions and practice tests that are released by College Board, these companies commit their students to practicing on “fake” questions and inauthentic practice tests. Many of the students I tutor come to me having never taken an official practice test – once I have them do so they often score differently (usually better) than they had on the Kaplan or Barron’s tests and usually notice a difference in the questions themselves. I use a variety of materials with the students that I tutor, but when it comes to practice questions and practice tests I rely almost exclusively on the official tests and questions released by College Board. In fact, when it comes to having my students take actual practice tests I prefer to use tests that were previously administered as an actual SAT as opposed to the tests that College Board created for the main book that they publish since the latter ones are not quite as authentic because they didn’t go through the same vetting process that the actual previously administered tests did.
Furthermore, an private SAT tutor is free to use any resources he or she sees fit and is not constrained by the brand that he or she works for. I personally have a variety of materials that I use – different students have different needs so the particular books and questions I use varies from student to student. I have my own materials that I use, but I also use books from the major companies (like Barron’s and Kaplan) as well as those from individual tutors like me. Again, for practice questions and practice tests I rely almost exclusively on the official College Board materials, but for teaching strategies or learning techniques there are a variety of good resources available. Ultimately I choose whatever resources I deem to be the most effective and the most useful for that particular student. Any really experienced SAT tutor should be knowledgeable about the range of options out there and be able to choose those that best fit the student and situation. Tutors who work for the large companies are generally limited to the materials produced by that company, for obvious reasons, but they also tend not to even be aware of what else is out there since they operate in a kind of bubble within the company.